Sankofa: Nurturing Roots and Historical Significance

Sankofa, deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of the Akan people of Ghana, represents more than a mere phrase—it encapsulates a profound philosophy steeped in the preservation of history, respect for ancestors, and the wisdom of the past. Understanding its history and relevance extends beyond the shores of Ghana and transcends time, offering invaluable lessons for contemporary societies, including Americans seeking a deeper connection with their heritage.

Unveiling Sankofa’s Origin and Historical Context

Originating from the Akan people of Ghana, Sankofa has historically been a poignant symbol of remembrance and homage to ancestors. It gained prominence during the transatlantic slave trade, providing enslaved Africans with a means to retain their cultural identity amidst adversity. The symbol’s widespread use during this era highlights its significance as a tool for connection and resilience.

A Personal Quest for Roots: Navigating Ancestral History

For many Black individuals, the quest to unearth family history is a profound journey driven by a longing to discover their origins. DNA tests, such as those offered by or, serve as potential pathways to unlock the mysteries of ancestry. These tests provide a sense of belonging and identity, offering a glimpse into ancestral lineages and geographic origins, often shrouded by historical complexities.

Embracing Sankofa: A Guiding Light for Future Generations

Upon discovering ancestral truths through DNA testing, the philosophy of Sankofa becomes a guiding principle. Sankofa encourages the acknowledgment of the past and the active incorporation of these discoveries into everyday life. By honoring and embracing newfound knowledge of lineage, individuals can foster a deeper understanding of cultural heritage, passing this wisdom to future generations.

Sankofa’s Symbolism and Reflection: The Sankofa Bird’s Wisdom

The Sankofa bird, depicted as a bird with its head turned backward, grasping an egg in its beak while moving forward, symbolizes the profound Ghanaian philosophy of remembering the past to shape the future. In essence, “Sankofa” is derived from the Akan words “San” and “Kofa,” translating to “go back and get it.” This is the more popular and recognized symbol associated with Sankofa. This symbolism emphasizes the importance of delving into history to progress consciously. Understanding this symbol empowers individuals and groups to ask crucial questions about the past and harness its lessons for future motivations.


Dr. Motiappiah Kubi Kwarteng, a native of Ghana with a Ph.D. in Leadership from Andrews University, reflects on the Sankofa bird’s teachings in his work. He highlights that reclaiming forgotten or lost elements from the past is crucial to understanding and elevating present experiences. His introspection delves into oral communication, community importance, leadership lessons, and worldview issues, showcasing how the Sankofa philosophy is a guiding principle for personal growth and societal enlightenment.

The Sankofa symbol with two hearts, which looks like the conventional symbol for the heart, is not as widely recognized as the Sankofa bird. However, it holds its significance within the context of the Sankofa philosophy. The Sankofa bird represents learning from the past, acknowledging it, and using that knowledge to build a better future.

Heart Symbol

In specific contexts, Sankofa finds representation through a lesser-known symbol resembling two interconnected hearts. While this depiction exists, interpretations of this symbol might lack universally agreed-upon meanings. Some perspectives associate the heart symbol with emotions, love, or the essence of life. Others perceive it as symbolizing the unity of two fundamental aspects—looking back to the past and moving forward.


Moreover, the symbol’s significance extends globally, notably in North America and the United Kingdom. In Lower Manhattan in 1991, during a building excavation, a significant discovery was made—a cemetery for free and enslaved Africans. Among over 400 identified remains, one coffin stood out. Nailed into its wooden lid were iron tacks forming an enigmatic heart-shaped design, interpreted by some as a representation of Sankofa. This site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument, prominently featuring the design from the coffin lid carved onto a large black granite memorial.

Furthermore, the heart-shaped symbol is used by various Afro-centric organizations across North America. Its presence is notable in cities such as Washington, DC, and New Orleans, particularly in fence designs. Additionally, it’s seen in popular culture, as Janet Jackson bears a Sankofa tattoo on her inner right wrist, featured prominently in her 1997 album, The Velvet Rope, and its supporting tour.

Despite its widespread use, the interpretations of the heart symbol’s meaning may vary considerably, lacking a standardized or widely accepted definition, unlike the more recognized Sankofa bird symbol.

Empowering the Future with Sankofa’s Wisdom

Incorporating the principles of Sankofa into daily life involves preserving newly found ancestral knowledge and weaving it into the fabric of familial narratives. This integration can include celebrating cultural traditions, imparting stories of resilience and triumph over adversity, and nurturing a sense of pride in one’s roots.

Conclusion: The Legacy of Sankofa for Generations to Come

Sankofa’s profound philosophy encourages individuals to cherish newfound knowledge about their ancestry and heritage. By embracing these discoveries and weaving them into the tapestry of family history, individuals can nurture a sense of identity, belonging, and resilience. Ultimately, by utilizing Sankofa’s wisdom, each generation contributes to a legacy that honors the past while paving the way for a more enlightened and empowered future.

Sankofa’s legacy transcends time, offering a roadmap for modern societies to cherish their history, respect their ancestors, and weave a more vibrant tapestry of cultural heritage for generations to come. Embracing Sankofa’s wisdom ensures that the stories of the past become a guiding light for a brighter, more interconnected future.


As a documentary filmmaker deeply immersed in pre-production for a project exploring the profound relevance of Black history and its interconnectedness with our present and future, I found myself in a creative impasse when it came to finding the perfect title. The quest for a name that encapsulated the essence of the narrative was an intricate puzzle until a moment of serendipity during my extensive research journey. It was then that I stumbled upon the captivating concept of Sankofa.

This African symbol, carrying the weighty mantra of “Go back and fetch it,” struck a resounding chord within me. Its philosophy of learning from the past to forge a better future resonated profoundly. Suddenly, everything clicked. Sankofa encapsulated the heart of my documentary’s vision—a reminder to honor history as a guiding light toward a more enlightened tomorrow. Intrigued by its depth and significance, I found myself drawn into the captivating world of Sankofa, and it became the guiding star for my cinematic endeavor and titled the 3-part docuseries Sankofa Chicago.

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